Pope Francis urged Secular Franciscans on Monday to embrace the “path of conversion” taken by St. Francis of Assisi.
The pope spoke to participants in the general chapter of the Secular Franciscan Order on Nov. 15, days after making his fifth visit to Assisi since his election in 2013.
Addressing members of the order originally known as the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, he reflected on the 13th-century saint’s transformation from a gilded youth to a humble friar nicknamed “Il Poverello.”
The pope said that the Secular Franciscan vocation was “born of the universal call to holiness,” a term used in the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
“This holiness, to which you are called as Secular Franciscans … involves the conversion of the heart, attracted, conquered and transformed by the One who is the only Holy One, who is ‘the good, every good, the supreme good,’” he said, quoting from St. Francis’ writings.
“This is what makes you true ‘penitents.’ St. Francis, in his Letter to all the faithful, presents ‘doing penance’ as a path of conversion, a path of Christian life, a commitment to do the will and works of the heavenly Father.”
The pope noted that in his Testament, St. Francis said that he was at first repelled by the sight of lepers. But when God inspired him to do penance, the saint wrote, “that which had seemed to me bitter was changed for me into sweetness of body and soul.”
“The process of conversion is thus: God takes the initiative: ‘The Lord gave to me to begin to do penance.’ God leads the penitent to places where he would never have wanted to go: ‘God led me among them, the lepers,’” Pope Francis said.
“The penitent responds by accepting to place himself at the service of others and by using mercy with them. And the result is happiness: ‘That which had seemed to me bitter was changed into sweetness of mind and body.’ Exactly the path of conversion taken by Francis.”
He went on: “This, dear brothers and sisters, is what I urge you to achieve in your lives and in your mission. And, please, let us not confuse ‘doing penance’ with ‘works of penance.’ These — fasting, almsgiving, mortification — are consequences of the decision to open one’s heart to God.”
“Open your heart to God! To open one’s heart to Christ, living in the midst of ordinary people, in the style of St. Francis. Just as Francis was a ‘mirror of Christ,’ so may you too become ‘mirrors of Christ.’”
The Secular Franciscan Order belongs to the third branch of the Franciscan family, after the First Order of friars and the Second Order of nuns, known as the Poor Clares.
The Franciscan Third Order dates back to 1221, when St. Francis outlined a way of life for lay people seeking to do penance but unable to join the First or Second Orders.
Well-known Secular Franciscans include Dante, St. Joan of Arc, Christopher Columbus, Michelangelo, and St. Thomas More.
Each of the orders has its own Rule, rooted in St. Francis’ original Rule of 1209. Pope Paul VI approved the current version of the Rule of the Secular Franciscan Order on June 24, 1978, with his letter Seraphicus Patriarcha.
The order’s general elective chapter was due to take place last year but was postponed due to the pandemic. It is being held in Rome on Nov. 13-21.
Pope Francis told participants in the general chapter: “You are men and women committed to living in the world according to the Franciscan charism. A charism that consists essentially in observing the holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“The vocation of the Secular Franciscan is to live the Gospel in the world in the style of the Poverello, sine glossa [‘without gloss’]; to take the Gospel as the ‘form and rule’ of life.”
“I urge you to embrace the Gospel as you embrace Jesus. Let the Gospel, that is, Jesus Himself, shape your life. In this way, you will take on poverty, minority, and simplicity as your distinguishing marks before all.”\
The pope described the Secular Franciscans as “part of the outbound Church.”
“Your favorite place to be is in the midst of the people, and there, as lay people — celibate or married — priests and bishops, each according to his or her specific vocation, to bear witness to Jesus with a simple life, without pretension, always content to follow the poor and crucified Christ, as did St. Francis and so many men and women of your order,” he said.
“I encourage you too to go out to the peripheries, the existential peripheries of today, and there to make the word of the Gospel resound. Do not forget the poor, who are the flesh of Christ: you are called to proclaim the Good News to them, as did, among others, St. Elizabeth of Hungary, your Patroness.”
He added: “And just as the ‘fraternities of penitents’ of yesteryear distinguished themselves by founding hospitals, dispensaries, soup kitchens and other works of genuine social charity, so today the Spirit sends you to exercise the same charity with the creativity required by the new forms of poverty.”